Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“It’s kind of boring, to be honest with you, because there’s no scrambling going on, there’s no trickery going on, there’s no spying. That’s fun for me, you know?” — Tony Vlachos, winner, Survivor: Cagayan
Oscar Wilde once wrote that one can live down anything except a good reputation.
Nowhere is that more true than on Survivor. On the thrilling premiere of Game Changers, some of the show’s biggest legends found themselves struggling against their own notoriety. Tony, Sandra, Cirie, Malcolm, Ozzy…the very fact that they’re cast on Game Changers means they made a big move. Now, they stand to pay the price.
Ciera Eastin is the first to fall prey to her own devious rep. The players remember her as the girl who voted out her mom in Blood vs. Water, and the pint-sized player who demanded big moves in Cambodia. As soon as she starts spinning strategy, the tribe sends her packing.
And in the heart-breaking second elimination, one of my early favorites Tony Vlachos had his torch snuffed, for the very first time.
Tony never really had a shot this season. The Lord of the Llamas landed in Fiji with a massive bullseye on his back. When EW’s Dalton Ross asked the contestants pre-game who they wanted out first, seven of twenty said they were gunning for Tony — more than were targeting any other player.
But last night on Game Changers, Tony wasn’t doing himself any favors. Within minutes of landing on the beach, he was racing into the woods. He claimed he was looking for idols, but it actually seemed like he wanted the other contestants to chase him. “Nobody’s coming,” he says, like a bummed out kid who just wanted to play.
Later, rather than politicking at camp, he digs a “spy bunker,” a hole by the water well that may supplant Rupert’s shelter in All Stars as “Least Effective Survivor Hole.”
Tony fans, don’t get me wrong. (And Tony, if you’re reading this, I promise you my glasses are clean). I’m Team TV all the way. Tony’s run in Cagayan was right up there among my favorite Survivor wins of all time. But what made Tony an unbelievable player in Cagayan was his ability to read the other contestants. The bag of tricks and the spy shack were just window dressing. This time, he gets so riled up hiding out in the bunker, that he misjudges Sandra’s intentions, decides to oust her, and ends up bringing the target onto himself.
Tony last night seemed like he came to play the character of Tony rather than the game Survivor. At one point during the episode, he said, “I have to finish my spy bunker and get control of this game.” Maybe switch those priorities around?
I wish Tony had a few more days to burn off the extra energy and slip into his groove. It can be hard for a human being who becomes a TV Character to stay grounded. Tony reminded me a little of Coach in Heroes vs. Villains, who entered his second season with a pre-set Arthurian nickname for every contestant.
Of course, Coach came back in South Pacific a wiser man and a better player. I have limitless faith for Tony 3.0.
The Fishy Award for last episode goes to Sandra, who rallied the tribe to eliminate Tony. That’s an impressive feat, when you consider that Mana narrowly lost two challenges, Tony is a challenge beast, and Sandra is famous for sitting out.
Varner notices how quickly Sandra musters her forces. “She’s won this game twice for a reason,” he says, with a knowing look.
Sandra was on fire last night, with ripping one-liners and her very own catch phrase. (“The queen stays queen, and adios”) that she repeated at least three times. But Varner’s look worried me. It means that if she’s not careful, Queen Sandra could soon have her head on the chopping block, too.
To Game Change or Not to Game Change
Of course, the whole concept of Game Changers is designed to amp up the frenetic play. That’s what I love about this season’s theme. You can quibble over who deserves to get cast, but ultimately what’s best about any theme is how it insinuates its way into the players’ brains.
On Second Chance, we all went loony tunes with the need to “make the most of our second chances.” I think Game Changers is going to push a lot of players to make big moves. That could be great television, even as it’s often bad play.
As cop Sarah Lacina says, “With a season called Game Changers, somebody will get anxious and feel like they need to make a move, which will put a target on their back. I’m going to be the silent assassin.”
Similarly, the irrepressible Brad Culpepper says, “This time around I’m trying to let everybody come to me.”
And here’s Malcolm: “It’s more important to be getting a foothold with alliances and relationships and not be pulling a Tony.”
I’ve often thought that the best strategy in the Big Moves era of Survivor is to make the smallest moves possible. Especially in the first few days, returning players can forget how long of a slog Survivor is. In our memories, the game is a few frenetic highlights of scrambling in the woods, when really it’s more akin to watching paint dry for a month.
It can pay million-dollar dividends if you take things at a glacially slow pace.
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On the Nuku tribe, Cirie Fields is also suffering from the curse of Reputation. She’s immediately outcast by Ozzy, who still smarts from getting blindsided by her in Fans vs. Favorites. And her attempts to recruit new allies fall on suspicious ears.
“They think Cirie the legend, Jedi mind trick puppet master is trying to get me,” she laughs.
Still, Cirie keeps working her magic. My favorite moment of the episode came when Cirie was talking to Tai on the rocks.
“You just need to work it out with Ozzy,” Tai tells her.
“So when you talked to Ozzy this morning, you got the feeling that I still need to work it out with him?”
Tai says nothing.
“Your pause? That pause is giving me concern.”
Now granted, Tai isn’t exactly the Jean-Robert Bellande of poker faces. But the way Cirie so quickly unpacks the subtext of his every gesture gave me an electric thrill.
This was why I tune in to Survivor, and what I’m most excited about this season: the best players, playing their best.
Did anybody else notice how many alleged threats there are this season? Tony is a threat. Malcolm is a threat. Sandra is as threat. Caleb is a threat. Aubry is a threat. Ciera is a threat. Which had me wondering, is anybody out there not a threat?
But what was truly interesting was that while everybody was a “threat,” nobody (except Ciera) was actually targeting threats. Everybody playing wants to keep around as many “meat shields” as possible to keep the target off themselves. That’s a far cry from the slugfest of Rob vs. Russell in the Heroes vs. Villains pre-merge. The meta-game of Survivor has evolved.
Of course, the guy who truly perfected that strategy was the winner of the last all-star season, Jeremy Collins, whose “meat shields” protected him all the way to the million dollars. Every one of these contestants saw how successful that run was. Now they’re imitating it.
So another Fishy for my good friend Jeremy. In a season of Game Changers, you could argue it’s Jeremy who has set the pace of the game.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.